Stephen Hawking once said that intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. Passing attacks in the NFL are evolving faster than ever before, which means most teams are now turning to nickel packages as their base defense. This means the importance of cornerback and safety depth is invaluable in today's game.
Look at players like Lamarcus Joyner, Justin Coleman, Desmond King, Kenny Moore, and Quandre Diggs. They are some of the best nickel defenders and young defensive backs in the league today. Their value as man coverage erasers, instinctive zone playmakers, and reliable run defenders cannot be overstated. But if they played 10 years ago, they would be labeled as “tweeners” because of their size or less-than-desirable physical profile to play on the outside. That has changed, and a nickel defensive back is now a starting position -- plain and simple.
That brings me to UCLA’s Darnay Holmes. He is a shade under 5’10, but he runs a sub 4.3 and is arguably the most physical player on the Bruins defense, pound for pound. His size and lack of length will likely push him away from being a boundary corner on most teams' draft boards, but make no mistake, he possesses everything you would hope to find in a nickel defender, just like the players I mentioned above in terms of speed, man coverage consistency, instincts, and physicality against the run.
To give you an idea of how fast he is, Holmes was the only player I watched on film last season who could run stride for stride with Oklahoma’s Marquise “Hollywood” Brown on a vertical route. While he may not be the biggest, Holmes will undoubtedly enter the NFL as one of the fastest players in the league.
But he has more than just raw speed in man coverage. He has the foot quickness to mirror and match, as well as the ball skills of a wide receiver to threaten every play at the catch point. For example, look at this route recognition against former Arizona State wide receiver and New England Patriots first-round pick N'Keal Harry. Cornerbacks as athletically gifted as Holmes tend to rely on their speed too much and have the mindset of "I can afford to be a step late," but that is not the case with him. From both an athletic and instinctual perspective, he plays as fast as any cornerback I've watched on tape this summer, and that's saying a lot considering the strength of this upcoming class.
Again, Holmes' mental processing in coverage may be his biggest strength, other than his natural athletic gifts. Whether in man or zone coverage, Holmes' timing and reactionary quickness are outstanding. His ability to process the game so quickly from a cerebral perspective will make him extremely valuable in the league's eyes as a scheme-versatile nickel defender.
One of the most underrated aspects of assuming the role of a nickel defender is the ability to play against the run. Often times, the nickel player is the run support initiator, whether that is at the LOS or on a blitz. Whereas I just want my outside cornerbacks to be reliable against the run, I need my nickel defenders to also be tone setters in run support. Darnay Holmes is more than just a tone setter. In fact, I think he's the most physical dude on that UCLA team, pound for pound. His competitive toughness and love for just driving ball carriers to the turf reminds me a ton of what Desmond King's film coming out of Iowa.
Quite simply, UCLA's Darnay Holmes is one the nation's most explosive playmakers and reliable defenders in coverage across the nation. Not even talking about his production as a punt returner, Holmes is a threat to take the ball to the house each times he gets his hands on it. With three interceptions each of his first two seasons for the Bruins, I expect Holmes to, once again, translate his coverage traits into elite production on the field.
So where do you value an elite nickel defender like Darnay Holmes? In my opinion, there is no ceiling to what a player of his caliber can be at the next level. His combination of rare athletic gifts and unparalleled instincts as a playmaker could make him one of the best nickels in the league. Especially with the nickel defender becoming a starting position in today's NFL, I don't think there is a round too high to take a player with his all-around, translatable skill set.